Cubs

How the Cubs match up against the Dodgers in the NLCS

How the Cubs match up against the Dodgers in the NLCS

Ben Zobrist used a 1910 model of a glove during the Cubs workout Thursday, "just for fun."

Think the Cubs are loose enough?

Zobrist and his teammates are feeling themselves right now, as well they should. 

Tuesday's NLDS-clinching Game 4 comeback in San Francisco ranks among the best in MLB posteason history and the team that finished the regular season with the best record in baseball is overflowing with confidence.

As the Los Angeles Dodgers pulled out all the stops to fend off the Washington Nationals in a high-stress Game 5 Thursday night, the Cubs only had to be concerned with what to eat for dinner ("I think we're gonna use UberEats," Joe Maddon said).

Before the Dodgers and Nationals squared off in the longest nine-inning game in postseason history, Maddon didn't need to deliver any John Wooden quotes about how the Cubs just needed to focus on playing their game. 

Been there, done that.

Beyond Clayton Kershaw, the Cubs hitters have very little experience going up against the rest of the Dodgers pitchers, but that wasn't enough to create any sense of panic in Maddon at the Cubs workout at Wrigley Field Thursday.

"It's the same way for us, although I do believe a pitcher who's pitching well should have an advantage over a team that has not seen him to that point, normally," Maddon said. "Kershaw, we've seen in the past and you know how good he is. [Rich] Hill, I've never seen in person yet, but I've seen him on TV. 

"Of course, it's something different. But I wouldn't worry about that. ... I honestly believe our guys will be equal to the challenge. I know they're gonna be ready. We're feeling pretty good about ourselves. Just continually work the moment and we'll be fine."

The Cubs are already in a good spot, getting three full days of rest before the National League Championship Series starts Saturday night. 

Plus, they get to reset their rotation and roll out their ace (Jon Lester) for Game 1 in hopes of setting the tone again. 

The Dodgers, meanwhile, tapped their closer (Kenley Jansen) for a career-high 51 pitches and both of their top two starters (Kershaw and Rich Hill) in the do-or-die Game 5 Thursday night.

Kershaw threw 110 pitches in Game 4 Tuesday, had a day off, then threw another seven pitches to get two outs Thursday night. Would the Dodgers push him again to start one of the games at Wrigley this weekend?

Hill dealt with blister issues the entire second half of the season and already started Game 5 Thursday on short rest after throwing 82 pitches on Sunday. He wasn't all that effective in either outing (combined 6.43 ERA, 1.86 WHIP).

But the Dodgers are far more than just three pitchers.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

2016 SEASON SERIES

The Cubs went 4-3 against the Dodgers in the regular season, winning three of four at Wrigley in June before dropping a pair of one-run contests in a three-game set at Dodger Stadium in late August.

The Cubs finished the season with a +252 run differential, but that number was only +3 against the Dodgers in the seven games as the Cubs offense averaged only 2.7 runs per game against L.A. pitching.

LINEUP

The Dodgers lineup is so loaded with lefties, both Maddon and Cubs GM Jed Hoyer admitted rookie southpaw Rob Zastryzny could crack the 25-man NLCS roster.

Zastryzny has only 16 big-league innings under his belt and got lost in the shuffle a little bit down the stretch, appearing in only two games in the final four weeks of the regular season. But the results were all positive (1.13 ERA, 1.06 WHIP).

In the winner-take-all Game 5, the Dodgers started six lefties and a switch-hitter against Nationals ace Max Scherzer and then brought out another lefty (Andre Ethier) to pinch hit.

Beyond Lester, the Cubs also had three southpaws in their bullpen in the NLDS - Travis Wood, Mike Montgomery and closer Aroldis Chapman. Zastryzny would represent another weapon if the Cubs went that route.

Regardless of side, the Dodgers have a deep lineup with a nice blend of youth (Corey Seager, Joc Pederson) and battle-tested veterans (Chase Utley, Justin Turner, Adrian Gonzalez) plus role players like Josh Reddick, Howie Kendrick and the enigmatic Yasiel Puig.

Utley and catcher Carlos Ruiz won the World Series with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008 and will help keep the clubhouse focused on the big picture.

ROTATION

Kershaw pulled a Madison Bumgarner by pitching in three of the five NLDS games, leaving his status in doubt. 

Is Game 1 out of the question? He only threw seven pitches Thursday night plus his warm-ups in the bullpen. Other than that, he had Wednesday and will have Friday off after Tuesday's 110-pitch start.

Can he go in Game 2 Sunday night? Or will the Dodgers play it safe and just wait to unleash him until next week in Los Angeles?

Those are the main questions around the Dodgers rotation, since the sun rises and sets with Kershaw, the best pitcher on the planet. 

Hill's blisters could still be a concern and he probably won't be a factor in the first two games at Wrigley.

Then there's 20-year-old phenom Julio Urias, who pitched twice against the Cubs in the regular season to a 1-1 record and 4.91 ERA. But Urias really turned a corner in August, going 4-0 with a 1.34 ERA in his final eight games (six starts).

Japanese rookie Kenta Maeda rounds out the rotation and only lasted three innings in his first postseason start against the Nationals, giving up four runs and taking the loss.

BULLPEN

After taking advantage of the Giants' shaky bullpen in the NLDS, the Cubs now draw a Dodgers bullpen that paced the majors with a 3.35 ERA in the regular season.

Jansen (47 SVs, 1.83 ERA, 0.67 WHIP, 13.6 K/9) and Joe Blanton (28 HLDs, 2.48 ERA, 1.01 WHIP) lead the way. Righties Pedro Baez, Josh Fields and Ross Stripling and lefty Luis Avilan present manager Dave Roberts with plenty of options for the middle innings.

Grant Dayton, a 28-year-old rookie, had a 2.05 ERA in the regular season, but had a rough NLDS (16.20 ERA, 4.20 WHIP).

KEY TO THE SERIES

The Cubs hit just .200 with a .597 OPS against the Giants in the NLDS and saw a stunning share of their offense come from the pitching staff. 

But now they draw a team that threw everything on the line just to get to the NLCS.

Kershaw's postseason struggles are for real (5.84 ERA in NLDS, 4.83 in 15 games prior to 2016) and he also missed several months of the regular season with a back injury. If he can't turn things around in the NLCS or if he only gets in a couple games, that would be a huge boost for the Cubs.

Of course, there could be some regression to the mean for baseball's best offense regardless of who's pitching. Only the Texas Rangers posted a worse team OPS in the postseason through the NLDS and they got swept by the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALDS.

The Cubs offense is a sleeping giant and that Game 4 comeback could be the trigger.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Nightmare weekend at Wrigley

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USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: Nightmare weekend at Wrigley

Fresh off the heels of the Cubs’ worst series at home in nearly two years, Luke Stuckmeyer and Tony Andracki tackle the most important topics surrounding this team right now.

 

0:30 – CubsTalk Podcast from an alternate universe where Nicholas Castellanos’ 10th-inning fly ball was actually a walk-off.

 

2:00 – A tale of two offenses.

 

5:00 – What’s the cure for what ails the Cubs lineup?

 

7:00 – Cole Hamels looks to be rounding into form.

 

9:00 – The Mets are shaping up to be another formidable matchup for the Cubs this week in New York.

 

11:00 – An update on Anthony Rizzo and his back injury.

 

13:30 – The Cubs badly need Javy Baez to get hot.

 

15:00 – Wrapping up with some positives, including Craig Kimbrel and the Cubs defense.

 

Listen here or in the embedded player below: 

Cubs Talk Podcast

Subscribe:

 

Situational hitting, Javy Baez's slump and where the Cubs offense goes from here

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USA TODAY

Situational hitting, Javy Baez's slump and where the Cubs offense goes from here

It's going to be awfully difficult for the Cubs to win the division with their lineup still flashing their Jekyll and Hyde ways.

After Wednesday's "season-defining" 12-11 win over the Giants, the Cubs managed to score just 1 run in Thursday's win, couldn't score until the ninth inning of Friday's loss, were unable to mount a comeback against the worst bullpen in the NL in Saturday's defeat and had to rely too much on the home run in Sunday's loss. 

The end result was a three-game sweep at the hands of the red-hot Washington Nationals — the first time the Cubs were swept in a three-game series at Wrigley Field in nearly two years (September 2017). 

All weekend, the Nationals lineup served as a perfect example of what the Cubs want to be offensively.

Both teams hit three homers over the three games, but the Nationals scored 23 runs while the Cubs managed just 10. Washington struck out just 21 times and drew 16 walks while the Cubs whiffed 33 times and worked only 11 free passes.

"The big difference is they weren't chasing out of the zone and we were," Joe Maddon said. "That's the difference in the series, primarily."

The Cubs deserve credit for never giving in Sunday, fighting back from a deficit three different times throughout the course of the game. But they were too reliant upon the home run and never led throughout the entire series.

Saturday's game was particularly troublesome as the offense had its chances, but failed to cash in during prime chances. They had runners at second and third with nobody out in the fourth inning of a 5-1 game, but both Kyle Schwarber and Victor Cartaini struck out and after a walk, Ian Happ did the same on a controversial pitch.

The next inning, after Jonathan Lucroy had doubled home a run to draw the Cubs closer at 5-2 and posit runners on second and third with only one out, the lineup failed to capitalize once again (Javy Baez struck out and then Schwarber popped out). 

"Even if there's nobody out and a runner on third, I like that first guy to get it done," Maddon said. "Sometimes in the back of your mind, it's like, 'oh, there's zero outs, if he doesn't do it, the next guy will.' It's been my experience when the first guy doesn't get it done, it probably does [trickle down] in some way to certain people, impact them differently. But I always want the first guy that gets the chance with zero outs to get this run in and take it from there. 

"But it's nothing new. We've had this problem in the past. [Saturday] was not a unique moment for us. It's something we have to continue to work at, to move the ball, score runs with outs. There was second and third, nobody out — a ground ball to second base, you score a run and get the other guy to third base. Scoring runs with outs is an art form that we have to accomplish, too."

Sure, those are huge momentum swings — particularly the Happ at-bat — but the game was far from over at that point against a group of Nationals relievers that came into the day sporting a 6.00 ERA (only the Baltimore Orioles had a worse mark). 

Instead, here's the result of each Cubs plate appearance to end the game:

Strikeout
Strikeout
Walk
Walk
*inning ended when Kyle Ryan was thrown out trying to advance to third on a wild pitch*
Strikeout
Strikeout
Strikeout
Strikeout
Groundout
Groundout
Flyout
Strikeout
Double
Strikeout

The Cubs failed to even put a ball in play for more than two innings and eight of the 14 plate appearances resulted in strikeouts.

Maddon has continually said the Cubs' best chance at going on a strong run down the stretch will hinge on the offense's ability to put it all together on consistent basis for an extended stretch.

The manager, ever the optimist, thinks there is still time to do that. 

"Oh yeah. I absolutely believe that to be true," Maddon said Sunday morning. "And then you have some guys coming back, which is gonna make that better. Javy's just been in a little bit of a slump. Javy's not gonna be that way the rest of the season. I really believe that, 100 percent. 

"I think Happer looks better right now. I think Lucroy, like he came off the bench [Saturday]. The ingredients are there. We just obviously gotta go do it. But yeah, I've been involved in teams that all the sudden click at the right time of the year and everything takes off. I do anticipate that happening, but it's only gonna happen if you keep pushing and believing. If you don't, it's not gonna happen."

Maddon's right — the Cubs do have all the necessary ingredients to settle into an offensive groove and getting guys like Willson Contreras and Ben Zobrist back from the injured list and restricted list will help.

But with only five weeks left in the season and the gap with the Cardinals widening, now would be the perfect time for this lineup to find that groove, especially over the next week — facing Marcus Stroman, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard in New York before the Brewers come to town for a three-game series.

There are many reasons to point to for why this offense — even with the red-hot Nicholas Castellanos in town — is so inconsistent, but one of the biggest issues lately has been Baez's slump.

Baez finished second in NL MVP voting last season and earned the nod as the starting shortstop for the All-Star team this summer. However, he's struggled since the break.

Entering Sunday, here were his season splits:

First half: .289/.324/.556 (.880 OPS)
Second half: .261/.288/.471 (.759 OPS)

He's been particularly cold over the last couple weeks, without a homer since Aug. 5 and slashing .213/.246/.295 (.541 OPS) in that time with 6 RBI in 17 games.

But he isn't slumping in the way you'd think. Baez is a free-swinger who often chase pitches out of the strike zone, which can lead to a huge spike in strikeouts, especially during cold streaks.

However, he's striking out just 24.3 percent of the time since the All-Star Break and that number is only 21.5 percent since Aug. 5. 

His season strikeout rate is 27.3 percent, so he's making contact more lately than he has all year, but to worse offensive results.

"It's just missing his pitch and really, he's gonna be out of the zone anyways, but a lot of times when he's out of the zone, the ball still gets on the fat part of the bat," Joe Maddon said. "That just hasn't been as frequent. ... He's just been off a little bit. It's just not getting to the barrel as often, but it will. 

"When I see a situation like this with a guy like that, I believe we're gonna benefit when it really matters moving forward. But otherwise, I think he's playing really well."

Maddon also believes the downturn could be related to Baez simply being worn down, playing essentially every inning of the Cubs season. He always plays hard, but this year, he's had to contend with a heel injury suffered in late-May while also playing shortstop full-time for the first time in his big-league career and ranging all over the outfield grass as the central figure in the Cubs' shifting techniques.

They were able to get him out of the second half of the game in Saturday's blowout for a half-day off and then he will get a rest Monday for the team's off-day.

"More than anything, the guy can definitely use a rest and I gotta make sure we stay on top of that," Maddon said. "It's just him playing hard. Man, he hit some weak ground balls, but he ran hard to first base and I really appreciate that. His defense has been outstanding in spite of all that."

Baez's defense has been elite (FanGraphs credits him with 16 Defensive Runs Saved so far this season), but rest will be hard to come by down the stretch (the Cubs only have one off-day after Sept. 4) and this lineup needs him in top form if they're going to put it all together and achieve the consistent production they're striving for.